As a self-appointed member of that exotic species named “internet entrepreneurs”, I was interested in Fraser Nelson’s article in the current issue of The Spectator.
The summary of the piece states: “… the Conservatives are taking their cue from the West Coast of America: the land of Google, Stanford University and venture capital. They want to rebuild Britain in California’s image: dynamic, high-tech, green and ‘family-friendly’.”
That is a good idea … up to a point.
California has its exhilarating high points for sure. It also embraces deep pits of madness. As a melting-pot State with many right-on East Coast emigres, plus millions of Hispanics up from the South, mostly illegal, it lacks the sense of cohesion Britain once had, and still does in some parts of the country.
California has an annual income roughly the same as the UK’s. Recently it was said to be overtaking Britain and would soon be the world’s fourth largest economy, taken by itself. We won’t know if that’s really true until the dust settles from the current depression.
On this side of the duck pond, we tend to see only two aspects of the State: Silicon Valley and Hollywood. Both conjure up images of starlets on roller skates, propelling themselves along wide pavements against a background of endless sun, sea and sand to the sound of the ululating Beach Boys.
We blank out the forest fires, the frequent earthquakes, the smogs, boot to bumper car jams, crime, and the cute chaos of the place. It’s a young person’s environment, maddeningly obtuse about lots of things, always eager to jump on any passing whimsy that offers a new thrill.
Incubator of the future, yes, but also progenitor of a million tried and rejected poppycock schemes. The Brits who wash up there are usually attention seekers, like actors, singers and graduates of Performing Arts schools.
California is also hard work. Michael Arrington, who built up TechCrunch from nothing, has had a series of health problems from overwork, including exhaustion, nervous and heart complaints. He recently received serious death threats and was spat on in a public place, requiring a month off work.
TechCrunch.com is a blog-based content network that evaluates startup enterprises and their products. It’s no place for the fainthearted apparently.
Duncan Riley, who originated The Blog Herald from a quiet corner of Western Australia, graduated to TechCrunch and spent some time in the Valley. His observations on the crazy greed of the place, its supercharged way of life and general attrition against human health and sanity, contributed to my own decision not to move there at the height of the boom.
And yet the lessons of the Valley and of the Californian and Seattle-based tech scenes can be learnt and imported by a new Tory administration.
Britain needs to manufacture more, especially high tech equipment and derivatives. Silicon Valley specializes largely in internet-based software and services, but it doesn’t make the hardware. The metal and plastic bits are cheaper to produce and assemble in the Far East, and that will remain so in the future.
The operating software, which the Valley does so well, is deferred design and therefore part of the manufacturing process. No-one will buy a generalist box of tricks with no room for applications.
There is also a third level in the making of computer technology, that of application writing — the creative bit. The operating software contains a series of APIs (application programming interfaces) which allow outside creators (programmers) to add products and services to the basic design.
Increasingly, these services are being dangled from “the cloud”, a magical place in cyberspace where software applications and APIs reside for public use. Software on hard drives is going rapidly out of fashion at the punchy end of the market.
The British happen to be very good at these secondary and tertiary levels of the manufacturing process. One thing holds them back.
The national curriculum and the educational establishment relentlessly discriminate against “abstract thinking”, the basic skill for succeeding in these areas. Universities are encouraged to subvert their course lists in favour of cottonwool subjects like media studies and sports management.
In Britain, you can select students for State schooling only in areas of music, sport, and other physical and dexterity arts. You can’t select for mathematics or disciplines which require abstract thinking, like philosophy, theoretical physics or logic.
Stupidly and destructively, the Labour party has created all manner of taboos against it, raising any proposer of academic selection almost to criminal status. So far, the Conservatives have gone along with this for a quiet life. They fear the demonizing power of the left, which is far nastier than they are.
That amounts to national suicide, especially for a country that was, within living memory, responsible for 55 percent of the world’s primary inventions and discoveries.
If George Osborne wants to mimic West Coast Silicon Valley or Seattle, let him sort out that problem first. Britain needs to train its own software engineers, not import them from India and the Far East.
Globalization will take a long time to recover from its recent catastrophic fall from grace. We need to look carefully at ourselves and incubate the future here at home. Empire building abroad can wait … for now.